Built-in vs. Standalone DACs

The general consensus here seems to be that standalone DACs are generally better than those built into an integrated amplifier. Many also agree that standalone DACs provide more flexibility, i.e., you can swap DACs without changing the amp.

For the sake of discussion, let’s set aside the flexibility argument and only focus on sound fidelity for now. The primary advantage of a standalone DAC is that it provides better isolation (reduction in electrical noise) since it’s not sharing its architecture with other shared components like power supplies and chassis, etc. I’m also assuming that service and repair is a bit easier as well. What other technical advantages can you guys think of?

Another salient point that I’ve come across is that many manufacturers treat a built-in DAC as an afterthought, and so while the DACs might not be bad per se they are never the star of the show. As a result, the manufacturers don’t go the extra mile in a way that a company producing standalone DACs might. I think you can put Krell, Hegel, McIntosh in this bucket. If you disagree, feel free to correct me.

But on the other hand, we see some high-end manufacturers providing built-in DAC modules and charging quite a bit for it. Examples include Accuphase, Gryphon, Aavik, Soluution, Audio Research, etc. In many cases, the addition of a DAC module can set you back an additional $5-7k. Do you guys think the high cost is basically a ’convenience’ surcharge, or can these high-end built-in DACs compete with DACs that cost about the same, e.g. standalone DACs in the $5-10K range.

So let’s say someone is ordering a Gryphon Diablo 300 and have to decide between adding their DAC module, or buying a separate DAC. Ignoring the flexibility argument for a minute, which route provides better SQ?



Before I peeve anyone I meant to say I’m sure it betters the 1-2k dacs and could be the equivalent of a 5-7k + stand alone dac but have no idea. My experience says when something tries to be a Swiss Army knife it’s often not as good as dedicated units. 

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I have had a Musician Aquarius for about a week and it’s just stupid good in my system! I put on an old Sepultura cd just for fun tonight to see what it would sound like. Old late 80s compressed metal album . Holy s..t did it sound good. Brought all the dynamics back out of that POS recording and all harshness went away. Just crazy! My 1st foray into a ladder dac but I have never heard a DS dac sound anything like this. It’s almost like you can feed it any damn thing and it makes it the best it possibly can be. Forget about slow and not detailed etc it’s all there in spades. No idea if it’s neutral but it’s natural as hell and makes EVERY DAMN thing sound like gold. 

I guess my point is there has been a shift happening in digital/dacs for the better. Hate to say it but probably mostly because of the Chinese dacs have caused the US and Europeans to up their game for the cost. To spend another 7 k for an internal one seems kind of silly if things keep progressing over the next few years. 

If you are on a journey for the very best sound quality, then you want separates. All high end companies build the very best they can into a single box solution… often two box solutions. Then they may combine.  Assaults at the high end are never boxes with lots of functions. For instance, my Audio Research Reference 160m monoblocks sound better than my Reference 160s stereo one box solution.

Multifunction boxes are those of compromise. There is a market for people that do not have the room or are more concerned with aesthetics. So as all the effort goes into single function components, it only makes sense to put them together and offer this to a less discriminating audience.


Of course, then most audiophiles work over decades to build better and better systems and so need to be able to make improve a single component at a time or the cost to upgrade becomes too large.


For me it was the flexibility of upgrading the DAC in the future. I brought a very highly rated DAC that back 5-6 years ago was considered state of the art in DAC's, it's probably a middle of the road one now. Some of the technologies they are using today were not even being used 5-6 years ago. It could be true that they have maxed out DAC technology, but I bet they are not anywhere near done. Take almost any audio equipment and look back 5-10 years.